Why you should eat more whole grains like quinoa, farro and oats

Whole grains are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
Whole grains are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. (Getty Images)

The fear of carbohydrates, and particularly grains, is still going strong, with many people believing that eating foods like bread, pasta and rice will lead to weight gain, high blood sugar levels and more. As a dietitian, I hear this almost daily.

While most Americans meet or exceed their daily recommended carbohydrate intake, with 74% consuming too many refined grains, only 2% actually get enough whole grains. It’s really important to understand that not all carbohydrates, and especially not all grain products, are the same.

Whole grains are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Cutting them out long-term means missing out on these benefits, and often leads to unsustainable eating habits. For a nutrient-dense and healthier eating pattern, you may want to consider adding more of these nutritional powerhouses to your meals.

Unlike refined grains, such as white flour, whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, so they retain their natural vitamins, fiber, healthy fats and more.

A new study presented at the Nutrition 2024 conference looked at the benefits of choosing whole grains over refined grains and how the nutritional value of wheat changes as it moves from farm to table, raw kernel to cooked bread — specifically, “you just have a huge loss in minerals and vitamins because you’re taking away the germ and the bran, which are the location of the vitamins and minerals,” David Killilea, lead author of the study and researcher at University of California San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life.

Killilea added: “We saw minerals go down by 50% to 80% just by moving from the whole grain option to the refined option.”

So what are some examples of whole grains? Here are the different types:

  • Whole wheat flour, bread, pasta and crackers

  • Whole grain cereals

  • Black, brown, purple and red rice

  • Oats

  • Corn and cornmeal

  • Quinoa

  • Farro

  • Barley

  • Einkorn

  • Freekeh

  • Amaranth

  • Bulgur

  • Millet

Whole grains provide carbohydrates, protein and fiber, along with essential nutrients like B-vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, potassium and antioxidants like vitamin E. And while yes, whole grains are high in starch — a commonly feared type of carbohydrate — their fiber and nutrient content make them a key source of energy for our bodies.

Whole grains are also an easy and nutritious way to meet your daily fiber needs. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the average American consumes only about 58% of the recommended daily fiber. Just one cup of cooked whole wheat pasta has over twice the amount of fiber than regular pasta, offering 5.5 grams compared to less than 2 grams per serving. The DGA recommends that adult women up to age 50 consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily and men 38 grams, and incorporating whole grains can help reach those goals.

The fiber in whole grains can help better manage blood sugar levels, lower LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol), reduce blood pressure, support gut health and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Plus, whole grains can keep you feeling fuller for longer, easing hunger and supporting weight management.

How much whole grains do you need in a day?

The DGA recommends that at least half of the total grains you eat in a day come from 100% whole grains. It’s recommended that adults consume at least three 1-ounce servings of whole grains per day.

So what exactly is a single serving of whole grains? Here’s what that looks like:

  • ½ cup of cooked grains or pasta

  • 1 slice of bread

  • ½ an English muffin

  • 1 6-inch diameter chapati or roti (both Indian flatbreads), or corn or whole wheat tortilla

  • 2 3-inch diameter pancakes

  • 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal

  • 3 cups of popcorn

Whole grains have a wide variety of flavors, textures and versatility, making them easy to add to both sweet or savory dishes — think oatmeal with cinnamon and fruit or whole grain bread topped with an egg and shredded cheese.

Shake up your usual salad by adding one-third or a half cup of whole grains, like wheat berries or farro, which not only boosts nutrients, flavor and texture, but also makes the meal more complete — and satisfying — helping to prevent hunger shortly afterwards. Likewise, adding a scoop of barley to vegetable soup can have a similar impact.

And if you’re looking to make the switch from refined to whole grains, start by making small changes — one grain and one meal at a time. Instead of finding a whole new recipe for dinner, try substituting quinoa or black rice for white rice, or using a whole wheat tortilla instead of a white flour tortilla on your next taco night.

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.